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Eloquent Prairie debut parses small-town murder

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/10/2015 (671 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Darby Swank, the narrator of Lisa Guenther's debut novel Friendly Fire, is an imperfect heroine.

A self-deprecating university dropout, she works a dead-end job near her family's Saskatchewan farm, perpetually cheats on her boyfriend and repeatedly makes poor decisions about her future.

Still grieving her mother many years after her death, Darby remains intensely loyal to her remaining family members -- her father, her grandparents, her uncle Will and especially her aunt Bea. When Bea, an acclaimed artist and horsewoman, is found murdered, Darby's familial loyalty is sorely tested.

Guenther uses this testing of Darby's loyalty, and her corresponding realization people and places are not always as they seem, to explore the subject of small-town Canadian life and domestic abuse. Although the results of that exploration are uneven, Guenther deserves praise for unflinchingly tackling such a difficult and disturbing subject matter in a debut novel.

Guenther is a farm journalist who lives in rural Saskatchewan, and her love of -- and familiarity with -- the Prairie landscape, its customs, culture and community are clearly evident. She painstakingly describes the mundane chores of farm life, the give and take of cow-herding and horse-wrangling, and both the beauty and tedium of rolling fields and dusty roads.

She saves her best writing for the character of Darby, creating a young woman whose flaws, thoughts, conversation and observations consistently ring true.

Darby's grief is "a stone worn smooth by water. Hard and cold," but small enough she can carry it wherever she goes. She reads her mother's cookbook like "a book of short stories," and describes sandbars pushing out of the water "like the ribs of a starving whale."

Yet as eloquent and forthright as Darby's narration is, the novel lacks a certain measure of suspense, tension and even plausibility. This is most apparent in some of its most critical scenes.

Guenther devotes many pages to Darby and family and friends fighting a massive fire at a neighbouring ranch, but ultimately those firefighting scenes have no sizzle. And the murder at the heart of the story is devoid of mystery, mainly because it's obvious early on who killed Bea.

The fact the police can do nothing with this information without concrete evidence is disturbing to consider. The fact everyone in town, including those who loved Bea, continues to interact with the murderer as though nothing has happened seems unlikely.

But maybe that's how it is in small towns. You can't point a finger without concrete evidence because you rely so much on your neighbours to fight fires, herd wayward cattle and rebuild fences.

It's clear Guenther knows rural small-town life, and in this novel she paints a vivid picture of both its foibles and its merits. But Guenther knows smart and strong women, too, and in this novel she has created one in Darby Swank -- even if Darby herself doesn't know it.


Sharon Chisvin is a Winnipeg writer.


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